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Thursday, July 30, 2009 06:20 pm

Zucchini wars and other garden memories


We fought over them for years, my grandfather and I. Zucchini. He wanted them big and I wanted them little. And when I say big, I mean really big — at least as big as a forearm. I understood why. To Papa, it was free money. Just by waiting a day or two, those little zucchini grew tenfold — and brought 10 times the price. I tried telling him we could charge more for the smaller ones, but he wasn’t buying it. He couldn’t believe that folks would pay more per pound for them. It got so that I’d sneak out to the rows of zucchini plants when he’d gone to town or was taking a nap, pick a basket of smaller specimens, then shove it under the counter in the garage where we sold our produce, putting a few out on display when he wasn’t around.

The truth is, although my grandfather grew lots of luscious vegetables, he wasn’t much interested in eating them. And when he did, he wanted them prepared the same ways he’d eaten them since childhood. Green beans — no matter how young and tender — had to be long-cooked with onion and bacon. Corn was boiled: the grill was OK for steaks, but no place for corn — or any other vegetable, for that matter. Zucchini? My grandmother sautéed a little onion and garlic, then threw in the sliced zucchini and cooked them until they were completely tender, almost falling apart, then sprinkled them with parmesan cheese. It was tasty, but watery. Even that was pretty exotic for Papa. He rarely ate any at all, and if he did, it was just a very small serving to appease my grandmother.

When I began cooking on my own in college and reading cookbooks I discovered how much better younger zucchini were. Those mammoth monsters might have been OK for the zucchini bread and chopped up into casseroles such as “zu-beefy” that were all the rage back in the 70s. But they also had tougher skins, and insides with large seeds and interiors that were largely tasteless. Sautéing sliced or cubed smaller slender zucchini lightly over high heat so that some of their water content evaporated, I discovered their true, delicate, flavor for first time. I was hooked, but Papa had no use for that fancy stuff.

Zucchini was a big part of my summers in the years when my grandfather, my fiancé-then-husband, Peter, and I worked together on the farm. I was the one largely responsible for picking them — by choice. I volunteered for zucchini duty primarily to avoid picking beans. Picking enough beans for supper is one thing. But facing a stack of bushel baskets at the end of rows of bean bushes that seemed to stretch into the horizon always made me want to turn and run. Do you have any idea how many green beans it takes to fill a bushel basket? Picking zucchini — even small ones — was infinitely preferable. One summer I calculated I picked almost two tons of them by myself. We hired bean pickers that year.

Back then, my idea of smaller zucchini was ones that were about six to eight inches long. Even more important was that they be slender — the guarantee that the seeds were unformed or barely formed. The miniature summer squashes available today — pattypans the size of quarters, finger-long zucchini, often with blossoms still attached — were unheard of. I laugh to think what Papa would have said about them. It would not have been pretty.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

RealCuisine Recipe
Turkish zucchini pancakes

Zucchini in various forms and varieties are found in cuisines around the world. Zucchini pancakes are a Turkish tradition. Every cook has his/her own variation, so don’t be afraid to add a bit more or less of the feta or any of the herbs to your own taste. The addition of walnuts is somewhat uncommon, but one I really like; they add a delicious dimension of flavor and texture. Traditionally, these are served with yoghurt but I prefer the contrast/compliment of a Middle Eastern tomato sauce, lightly flavored with cinnamon. These absolutely scrumptious pancakes are wonderful for brunch, lunch, or supper, as a vegetarian entrée or side dish. Bet you can’t eat just one!

  • 3/4 c. walnuts
  • 1 lb. young zucchini (without large seed cavities), stems and root ends trimmed, coarsely grated
  • 1 T. salt for sprinkling on the grated zucchini, plus additional below
  • 2 c. thinly sliced green onions, about 2 bunches
  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 1/2 c. all-purpose unbleached flour
  • 1/3 c. chopped fresh dill feathers, large stems removed, or substitute 1 ½  t. dried dill weed
  • 1/3 c. chopped parsley, preferably Italian flat-leafed
  • 2 T. chopped fresh tarragon or 2 tsp. dried (or substitute additional parsley)
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper, or more to taste
  • 1/2 c. crumbled feta cheese, about 3 ounces
  • Olive oil for frying the pancakes

Preheat the oven to 400º. Place the walnuts on a baking sheet and toast until they have just begun to brown and have become fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Cool the nuts, coarsely chop them, and set aside.

Put the grated zucchini in a colander or sieve and sprinkle generously with salt. Toss to incorporate the salt throughout the zucchini, then put the colander over a sink or bowl and let the zucchini drain for 30-45 minutes. Rinse the zucchini shreds thoroughly under cold running water, then spread them evenly over the surface of a large lint-free towel. Roll the towel up and press it firmly to remove as much moisture as possible. If the zucchini still seems wet, twist the towel and wring it out until the shreds are as dry as possible.

Combine the zucchini, green onions, eggs, flour, herbs and salt and pepper in a bowl. Stir in the crumbled feta. At this point, the mixture can be prepared ahead of time and refrigerated, covered, until ready to use. (If you’re making it more than two or three hours ahead, add the feta with the walnuts). Stir in the walnuts, making sure that the ingredients are combined thoroughly.

Place a large baking sheet, lined with paper towels, in the oven and turn the oven to warm. Pour a thin film of olive oil into a large skillet over medium high heat. When it is hot but not smoking, place large spoonfuls (about 1/3 c.) into the oil, spreading the mixture into flat cakes with the back of the spoon. Fry until the pancakes are golden brown and crispy on the outside and cooked through, turning once, about three to four minutes per side. As they’re done, place the pancakes in a single layer on the baking sheet in the oven to keep warm while cooking the rest. Serve immediately with yoghurt or the tomato sauce below. Makes about 12.

RealCuisine Recipe
Middle Eastern tomato sauce

This tasty tomato sauce is good not only with the pancakes above, but also served over rice or as an accompaniment to kebabs, kofte (meatballs) or grilled seafood or fish.

  • 1/4 c. extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 c. onion, NOT super-sweet, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced or thinly sliced, or more or less to taste, about 1 T.
  • 1 T. dried oregano leaves, crumbled
  • 1 cinnamon stick, approximately 2 inches long OR 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Sauté the onion and garlic, along with the cinnamon stick and oregano, in the olive oil over medium heat or until the vegetables are softened and lightly browned. Add the tomatoes and their juices, crushing them with your hands. Simmer until thickened, 30 minutes or more. Season with salt and pepper. Makes approximately 3 cups.

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